We Are the New ‘Coolies’

Muslim Matters

We Are the New ‘Coolies’

By Ayub Khan, MMNS

heathrow airport

It was 1893 and a young Indian lawyer, dressed in an impeccable European dress, was travelling first class in a train from Durban to Pretoria in South Africa.  All was well until the train reached Pietermaritzburg in the province of Natal. A European passenger had summoned the railway officials who ordered that the young lawyer vacate the compartment since ‘coolies’ and non-whites were supposedly not allowed in first class compartments. When the lawyer protested he was pushed out of the train along with this luggage.

The lawyer, who went on to attain fame as the apostle of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi, was forced to stay in a cold waiting room. “It was winter,” he later wrote in his autobiography, and “the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered.”

It was exactly how I felt when I was told by Air Canada officials in London’s Heathrow Airport that I won’t be allowed to board my flight to Toronto. I had flown in from Mumbai and was to connect to an Air Canada flight. Despite the fact that I arrived two hours ahead of departure the airline officials rudely told me that the flight has closed and that I might be able to fly in the next flight in another three hours. The reason being that because of my first and last names they will do a security check. All other passengers who came along with me on the flight were given their boarding passes in Mumbai itself and zipped through to the aircraft.

I waited in an immensely crowded waiting area with stiff chairs, rude staff, and dirty washrooms.  As the departure timed neared for the next flight I was told to board it at the last moment.

When I finally, reached Toronto I was shocked to find that my luggage is missing. I was told that it will be delivered to me in the next few days. I prayed that it reaches me as it contained several research documents, rare photographs, several books, and most of my clothes.  The Air Canada call centre representatives in India says repeatedly said that they are working on locating it and still haven’t found it. I do not understand why they can’t find when all checked bags have a computerized number tag on them.

As I waited for my luggage  I was reminded of Gandhi and his predicament 116 years ago. The Muslims are the new ‘coolies’ to be harassed and abused with impunity by one and all. There was only one difference. At least Gandhi had his luggage intact with him. I got my bag back after sixteen days of waiting.


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